Staying Sane in the Cardio Section

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Have you ever tried to do cardio inside, in the gym? It’s painful. I know there are some who do enjoy a stint on the cross trainer or stationary bike and that’s absolutely fine; this isn’t the blog you were looking for and I’ll let you go on your way – this blog is for those of us who can’t think of anything worse than climbing onto a stepper for the next 45 minutes, but who – for whatever reason – are going to do so anyway.

Now of course, I have to say this first:

You don’t have to do cardio inside, pretty much ever. Cardio isn’t needed to lose fat, a calorie deficit can be created with a nutritional intervention alone, and if you’re just looking to improve your overall health you’d probably be better off in the resistance training section anyway.

And those of you looking to improve your running? You’re better off on a road as a treadmill can alter your running gait quite a lot (not to mention the injury risk which, anecdotally, is far higher for treadmill running) and if you’re looking to get better at cycling you just can’t really mimic true road cycling indoors.

Secondary to all of that, it’s always going to be (in my opinion) better to do any cardio you do decide to perform, outside. You’ll see more of the world, soak up some Vitamin D and generally have a better time of things.

So with that all said…

Sometimes indoors cardio just needs to be done. Maybe you’re training for a race or event and the weather is making outdoors training impossible, maybe you’re looking to start out your fitness journey from the very beginning and a 30 minute bout on the cross trainer is all you can manage, perhaps you just don’t want to exercise outside by running at the side of the road in front of everyone.

Then there are a number of people looking to lose fat who will add on 30 minutes of cardio a few times per week, or an office worker may do a little in the morning before work just to make sure they aren’t sedentary all day. Just because indoors cardio isn’t the absolute best thing for everyone doesn’t mean it’s without any possible benefits. Sometimes it just has to be done.

That’s great, but the fact remains that it’s still really, really boring. What I’m going to do in this article is give you a couple of different ways you can make it a little less torturous and maybe, maybe, even enjoyable…

This is so BORING

The monotony of cardio training is the primary reason most people give for enjoying it about as much as stubbing a toe or getting an electric shock from touching their car. Putting one foot in front of the other and repeating ad nauseum is ok when you have fresh air to breathe and rolling fields to look at, but when all you can see is a screen of numbers or the person in front’s sweaty back (in the best case scenario…enough said) then it swiftly loses it’s charm.

The simplest way to get ‘round this is to break it up.  It’s an old trick, and you probably know it already, but it works.

“Eat an Elephant’

How do you eat an elephant? One little bite at a time.

This simple mental trick is useful for loads of different things in life, from indoor cardio, to high rep squatting sets, to surviving a long flight, to a long-term fat loss phase. You have a big thing in front of you which is going to take ages and it simply cannot be avoided – so you need to break it down.

One interesting part of human psychology theorises that we will weigh up negatives and positives of any situation and make a decision based upon the magnitude of reward vs the magnitude of the cost.

For example, if we perform well at work and are praised, we are far more likely to undergo the ‘pain’ of working hard again because we are expecting praise. Conversely we will be far less likely to put a great deal of effort into a job in which we feel under-appreciated because there is no positive reinforcement to our actions and therefore the reward does not outweigh the cost – we will simply ‘stamp our card’ and do the minimum amount needed to earn our pay.

Where it gets really interesting, though, is that we are able to delay a reward for a while provided the size of the reward increases proportionately to the wait. This is evidenced really well by the famous ‘marshmallow experiment’ whereby a child was offered one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows after a period of waiting which involved looking at but not eating the first marshmallow. A surprising amount of children were not able to wait a short time and accepted a smaller reward, because this avoided the pain of waiting.

Scale this up to adults and money and you can see what I mean a little better. Offer someone £10 now or £20 in half an hour and most people will wait, because the magnitude of the reward increases proportionately to the sacrifice. If you offer someone £10 now or £20 in a year, they’ll probably take the £10 in a lot of cases. Make those values £10 and £1000, though? They might wait.

This is you on the treadmill.

You are undergoing 30 minutes of torture and the only reward you are going to get is the feeling of satisfaction from completing the session…but that’s a really long time away. Depending on how you have mentally framed your ultimate goal and reason for doing cardio in the first place, whatever that may be (another blog for another time) you might be cool with that; but a lot of people aren’t. This is because waiting 30 minutes for a big reward just isn’t worth it when the waiting involves being tired and sweaty and achey and watching daytime TV.

So we break it down. 30 minutes means you have to run for 5 minutes, 6 times. Or 4 times and a 10 minute finisher. Whichever way suits your own mind, go for that. A lot of people will do the same on, for example, a set of 20 leg presses. It’s not a set of 20, it’s 4 sets of 5 without a rest.

Every time you complete a ‘segment’ you will get a small sense of satisfaction which can be just enough to get you through. You’re shrinking the size of the reward a little but dramatically reducing the time you have to wait for it.

Some ‘exciting’ ways to break it up

So how can we apply this trick? It’s all well and good to just do ‘6 sets of 5’ but that’s not all that powerful. Each 5 minutes is the same as the last, and without variation your approach is much less powerful.

1: Move around

If you have 30 minutes of cardio to do then split it between 3 different machines. Save your preferred mode for last if you can, and get the treadmill out of the way early. This gives you different movements to do, in a different place, and surrounded by different things to look at.

2: Add in some Fartlek Training

Fartlek training is an old Swedish idea which translates as speedplay. Think of it like interval training which is done a little more randomly.

If you have 30 minutes of cardio to do, break it into 6 different 5 minute sections as above, but DO something in each of those 5 minute sections. That way, each time you ‘finish’ a section you have something a bit different to look forward to. If you’re on a rowing machine you may add in a 500 metre sprint at some point in every 5 minute section, or you may increase stroke rate on 5:00 until 10:00 and reduce how hard you pull, then increase pull strength and reduce stroke rate from 10:00 to 15:00.

It’s a small change, but it ‘mixes it up’ just enough to keep your mind from melting.

3: Do some straight up intervals

Use the above trick, but make it more structured if you’re one of those people who like order and organisation. A 30 minute stint on the bike may be 10 rounds of 1 minute hard effort and 2 minutes moderate effort, or 2:45 and a 15 second sprint. Turning a longer workout into ‘rounds’ is a really effective way to keep your focus because, just like on a long car journey which you break up into 1 hour drives with a short stop after each, you’re not thinking ‘oh my god i have 7 hours left” you’re thinking “That last round wasn’t so bad, and I’ve done three already – yeah I can do 7 more of these”.

4: Create a pyramid

Start easy, progressively go harder until the midpoint of the workout, then come back down. That way you have a challenge for the first half, testing yourself and increasing the intensity to ‘put yourself through the paces’. This keeps you interested while simultaneously making the second half of the workout feel like a breeze which you may even enjoy in comparison.

 The Alternative – Are You Not Entertained?

Most commercial gyms nowadays have cardio machines with a TV attached. I even went to a gym once which let you play card games, chess and minesweeper on the screen which was fun for all of 3 minutes. This is a great idea in principle but ultimately you don’t usually find people go to the gym during prime TV time meaning you just end up watching Neighbours, or Jeremy Kyle, and wanting to extract your eyeballs with a spoon.

The typical alternative to this is to listen to music, but this is an imperfect system, too. The problem here is twofold: First, people generally listen to the same music in their car, at work and then at the gym, and you very quickly get sick of listening to the same stuff. Unless you’re some kind of music buff you’re going to run out of things to listen to after a short while. Secondly, music is only SO entertaining (again, unless you are really into music).

Music is usually something we have on in the background while we do things, I don’t know many people who sit and really listen to music as a pastime. They listen while they clean, or drive, or surf the web, or do something else which is semi-stimulating. It works for a lot of people when they are lifting weights because they enjoy lifting weights. To lift you also have to be a little more present in the moment and concentrate which distracts you from the fact that you’ve been in the gym for an hour.

During cardio, though, you have to really be in the mood to listen to music for it to be an adequate distraction from the monotony, and if you catch it on a bad day then your headphones are no use whatsoever.

What I recommend is that you listen to an audiobook.

One of the most common New Year’s Resolutions is that people say they will read more – I know I set this resolution myself this year, and it’s honestly not going so well.

Modern men and women are busy people, and unlike listening to music, reading requires that you give it 100% attention by very nature of the activity. It’s not like you can read and drive, or read and vacuum the front room – but someone can read to you.

Listening to an audiobook gives you the opportunity to get lost in a novel, or learn from some of the great authors around at the moment, whilst also doing other things like driving, walking, or hammering the cross trainer because it’s Winter and you don’t want to die of hypothermia at the side of a road wearing yoga pants.

Personally, audiobooks are my way of keeping up with reading. It seems like a cop out, but I’ve found that it’s a very convenient, easy and enjoyable way to get in to a good book. Unlike music, a book will last for hours and you might find yourself looking forward to your next workout so you can find out what happens next, and there are more Audiobooks around than ever before – more than you might actually expect.

On that…

This week's blog and this week’s podcast are sponsored by Audible. Audible is an Amazon owned website which has a vast array of audiobooks from novels to more factual stuff.

A few titles I’d hugely recommend you check out are:

Gut by Gulia Enders which is a really cool introduction to gut health and the impact which your gut flora can have on your health, mood and overall life.

The Diet Myth by Tim Spector which is a fantastic listen for anyone interested in Nutrition but who also has access to the internet. As you all know, there is a lot of misinformation, conflicting advice and sales pitches in the nutrition industry, but this book explains it all. What common misconceptions there are, why they aren’t true, and where they came from in the first place. 

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.  Great, well written (and well read) book which explains how the media and other mainstream sources of information take scientific data and represent it to say, well, whatever they want. Ever want to know why some people worry about ‘Toxins’?  Or why you don’t need to panic if you read “X causes a 500% increase in Y!!” then this is your book. Critical thinkers – it’s a must.

Finally, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli is a fascinating short book which answer some of the biggest questions ever asked. A concise, easy to understand and thoroughly entertaining introduction to relativity, string theory and more!

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